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Supervisor: Dr Natasha Yelina
Co-supervisor: Dr Abhimanyu Sarkar


Trait Reassortment and Crop Breeding

Crop breeding relies on selecting new trait combinations which result from meiotic recombination (crossover) occurring during sexual reproduction. Despite being key for breeding, crossovers are limiting due to their low numbers and uneven distribution along chromosomes. Low crossover numbers result in lengthy and costly breeding programmes and linkage drag, or co-inheritance of agronomically beneficial and deleterious traits due to a lack of crossovers between them. Crossover uneven distribution results in a proportion of agronomically important traits ‘locked’ for breeding due to their location in crossover-suppressed regions.
Recent advances in model plants (Arabidopsis) have identified crossover modifiers, protein factors that promote or repress crossovers. Modulating crossover modifiers’ expression results in increased genome-wide recombination and independent inheritance of previously genetically linked traits.


The PhD project aims to translate current knowledge of meiotic crossover control into impactful breeding technologies using soybean as a legume crop model. Specifically, the project will:
Objective 1:
Discover genome locations of key agronomically important soybean traits (e. g. early flowering, maturity) via association mapping.
Objective 2:
Determine meiotic crossover profiles associated with these traits.
Objective 3:
Develop novel virus-mediated technologies (Virus-Induced Gene Editing, VIGE, in soybean) and use established techniques (Virus-Induced Gene Silencing, VIGS, CRISPR/Cas gene editing) to modulate crossover modifiers’ expression.
Objective 4:
Combine the knowledge from Objectives 1-3 to increase meiotic recombination and accelerate generation of desired trait combinations identified in Objective 1.


Why Legumes?

Legume crops have multiple benefits for human nutrition, diet and health as well as sustainable agriculture due to their high protein and nutrient content, symbiosis with nitrogen-fixing bacteria and their utility in cereal/legume intercropping. Yet, legumes remain underexploited in the UK agriculture. Increasing and diversification of legume crops, as well as breeding novel better-adapted and better-performing varieties resilient to abiotic and biotic stresses has long-term strategic benefits and has specific focus at the Crop Science Centre and NIAB. Soybean is an ideal legume crop model with a fully sequenced and relatively compact reference genome and publicly available diverse germplasm. Highly conserved nature of meiotic crossover control as well as VIGS and VIGE techniques will allow translation of the technologies developed during this PhD project into other legume and non-legume crops of UK and global economic importance.

Training and Career Development

The PhD student will work on an interdisciplinary project that will combine fundamental research with a strong translational focus. The student will get fundamental training in trait association mapping, meiosis and crossover control, genome-wide crossover profiling via next generation sequencing, CRISPR/Cas gene editing, virus-mediated modification of gene expression, molecular biology and epigenetics. The student will benefit from being part of the vibrant and welcoming Cambridge academic plant sciences research community that includes the Crop Science Centre (where the student will be based), NIAB, the Department of Plant Sciences and The Sainsbury Laboratory (SLCU). NIAB is affiliated with the University of Cambridge and linked with the Crop Science Centre geographically and collaboratively. Both the Crop Science Centre and NIAB are world-leading crop research institutes where fundamental and crop scientists work together with breeders and farmers to deliver translational impactful research.


The translational aspect of the project will be consolidated by the student’s direct interactions with the studentship sponsor organisations, coordinated through the AgriFood Charities Partnership (AFCP). The Morley Agricultural Foundation (TMAF) is a member of AFCP and has its own Morley PhD Studentship programme. The student will spend time at the TMAF Farm and gain insight into how a research farm and farming in general operates through discussions with farmers and other TMAF- and AFCP-sponsored PhD students. Therefore, the successful applicant will be exposed to a variety of knowledge exchange and networking opportunities, which will be highly beneficial for their future career progress and for gaining insight into the needs of end-users. This studentship is for four years and is fully funded in line with UKRI-BBSRC standard rates. An annual maintenance stipend (2021-22 rates) of £15,609 and Home tuition fee support (to a maximum of £8844) applies to all applicants regardless of nationality.


The primary supervisor, Dr Natasha Yelina, is head of Crop Breeding Technologies Group at the Crop Science Centre, University of Cambridge. Her research group focuses on understanding mechanisms of meiotic recombination control in model and crop plants and translating this knowledge into impactful crop breeding technologies. Co-supervisor, Dr Abhimanyu Sarkar, is a Programme Leader in Legume Genetics at NIAB. His areas of expertise include legume biology, speed breeding, gene discovery and genomics.


This project is open to UK students only.
All applications need to be submitted through the University’s Applicant Portal. Details of the University’s Entry Requirements can be found on the Postgraduate Admissions Office’s website.
For specfic details, including course application deadlines visit the Course Directory listing of the PhD in Plant Sciences programme.
Please note that there is an application fee. Details of the Application Fee can be found here.
Anyone interested should complete the Cambridge Application forms before the deadline of Monday 14th March 2022.  Interviews will be held during April 2022.



Monday 14th March 2022

Interviews to be held during April 2022

Application Contact

Supervisory Panel

Dr Steve Rawsthorne (The Morley Agricultural Foundation)

Prof Ian Henderson (Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge)